Walkable West Palm Beach

1996 Transportation Policy in West Palm Beach was revolutionary

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I came across this memo posted on the U.S. Conference of Mayors website. It appears to have been written by the City Transportation Engineer at the time, Ian Lockwood. In the memo, he describes the philosophy behind the city transportation policy.

This is a fascinating piece of West Palm Beach history. There is no doubt this policy and the actions that ensued had a large part in the regeneration that happened in the the past several decades in the city. But the extent to which West Palm Beach was a leader in the arena of livable street design in 1996 only becomes apparent upon reading this document. There are elements of the policy that even now would be considered leading edge.

We need more engineers like this who will lead the change the citizens want to see, and less technicians who only know how to look up tables in a book and apply ‘copy and paste’ designs.

Here’s hoping West Palm Beach can see a second renaissance of this enlightened approach under Mayor Muoio’s administration.

Mayor Graham

Meeting Community Objectives through Street Design and Adopting a Transportation Language Policy 

“Urban streets can be safe and friendly if and only if the streets are designed to physically and emotionally foster apt behavior by all their users. Conventional engineering theories be damned, the true test of success for urban streets is if a child pedestrian can independently get there from here safely and pleasantly. Unfortunately, most urban streets fail by design.”
-Mayor Graham

The City of West Palm Beach has adopted an innovative approach to transportation planning, with an emphasis on traffic calming. This has helped stabilize and revive the downtown and several older, challenged neighborhoods. The intent is to reestablish the quality of life and improve resident and visitor perception of the built environment, thereby reversing the negative trends associated with conventional transportation planning and automobile dominance.

The City of West Palm Beach’s Transportation Language Policy is intended to remove the biases inherent in the current transportation language. This change is consistent with the overall shift in the city’s planning and development philosophy as West Palm Beach works toward becoming a sustainable community. The policy creates a greater understanding of the stakeholders and true nature of projects, which allows for a more equitable and balanced prioritization of limited resources. Objective language is used for all correspondences, resolutions, ordinances, plans, meetings, and when updating past work.

Community Objectives through Street Design

When one hears the words “traffic calming,” three ideas typically spring to mind:

1) slowing down motor vehicles; 2) reducing collision rates and severity; and, in some cases, 3) reducing the volume of drivers cutting through sensitive areas. 

In West Palm Beach, traffic calming is much more than this, starting with the adopted definition: “the combination of mainly physical measures that reduce the negative effects of motor vehicle use, alter driver behavior, and improve conditions for non-motorized street users.”

This definition is based on the one recommended by the Institute of Transportation Engineers International Subcommittee. Therefore, traffic calming involves changing the design and the role of the streets to reduce the negative social and environmental effects of motor vehicles on individuals and on the community in general. 

Traffic Calming and Neighborhood Revitalization

Traffic calming is self-enforcing; it lowers motor vehicle speeds and reduces aggressive driving. It also increases motorists’ respect for non-motorized users of the streets through the physical features of the street design. Other goals of traffic calming in West Palm Beach include: 

  • promoting walking and cycling; 
  • increasing safety for both motorists and non-motorists; 
  • improving perceptions of safety; 
  • improving aesthetics; 
  • assisting in the revitalization of challenged areas; and 
  • increasing the overall quality of life along the street. 

The city’s approach to traffic calming is “area-wide.” Over time, the city will fulfill its goal of affecting its entire urban area with appropriate levels of traffic calming on all the various types of streets. The ultimate goal is to make West Palm Beach unique, liveable, sustainable, “walkable,’ and the model for cities throughout the country. By way of an example, before and after photographs are provided of Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach. This street spurred additional traffic calming efforts in the city and is an excellent success story. Clematis Street in downtown West Palm Beach was the city’s first traffic calming effort and proved to be a tremendous success.

The city has implemented several traffic calming projects since Clematis Street, resulting in revitalization, reduction in street-related crimes (such as speeding, prostitution, and illegal drugs), and rejuvenation of depressed commercial corridors and challenged neighborhoods. Initially, the projects altered driver behavior physically – leading to slower, more respectful motorists and diminished cut-through traffic. 

Then it was realized that reducing speeds and the perceived dangers of vehicles also leads to increased natural surveillance. This occurs through the presence of more pedestrians, cyclists, and other residents of the area, thereby improving the overall environment and inviting even more people back into the city. Today, the impetus for future traffic calming projects is primarily to rejuvenate declining neighborhoods and to invigorate business and entertainment districts.

Traffic Calming, Crime Prevention, and Property Values

Traffic calming can work in conjunction with other crime prevention programs such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), but without requiring closures, diverters, semi-diverters, or one-way streets. Done well, traffic calming affects the quality of life, safety, and crime in commercial and residential areas. It also helps with the city’s historic preservation efforts and home ownership programs. In a nutshell, it is a powerful tool to help improve downtowns, revitalize challenged neighborhoods, create street and civic pride, beautify the public realm (often found only in the street), create the sense of safety, and provide the unique feeling of place and community. Lastly, traffic calming projects have attracted substantial private investment and have increased property values nearby.

Transportation Language Policy

The majority of the current transportation language was developed in the 1950s and 1960s. This was the golden age of automobiles, and accommodating them was a major priority in society. Times have changed, and creating a balanced, equitable, and sustainable transportation system is the new priority. The difficulty is that the transportation language has not evolved at the same pace as the changing priorities and still maintains a relatively pro-automobile bias. Continued use of the biased language does not promote nor support addressing transportation issues in an objective way. 

Removing Pro-Automobile Bias

Several biased words and phrases are identified, and the rationale for the changes is explained. The word improvements or upgrade is often used to refer to the addition of through lanes, turn lanes, channelization, or other means of increasing motor vehicle capacity and/or speeds. Though these changes may indeed be improvements from the perspective of motor vehicle users, they would not be considered such by other constituents of the city. 

For example, residents may not think that adding more lanes in front of their houses is an improvement. Parents may not think a channelized right turn lane is an improvement on their childÕs pedestrian route to school. Suggested objective language includes being descriptive, e.g., use through lanes, turn lanes, or using language such as modifications, changes, expansions, widenings. Like improved and improvement, there are similarly biased words such as enhance, enhancement, and deteriorate. Suggested objective language is changed, decreased, increased.

Level of service is a qualitative measure of describing the operational conditions of a facility or service from the perspective of a particular set of users (motor vehicle users, cyclists, pedestrians, etc.). If the set of users is not specified, then it is a mystery as to which set is being considered. The established bias enters the picture when it is assumed that unless otherwise specified, level of service implies for motor vehicle users. The objective way to use this term is to add the appropriate modifier after level of service, such as level of service for motor vehicle users. If level of service is used frequently for the same users in the same document, using the modifier is only required at the beginning of the document and periodically after that.

Traffic is often used synonymously with motor vehicle traffic. However, there are several types of traffic, i.e., pedestrian, cycle, and train traffic. To be objective, if you mean motor vehicle traffic, then use motor vehicle traffic. If you mean all types, then simply use traffic.

When considering development, one frequently discusses the concept of traffic demand, fluctuations in traffic demand, peak hour traffic demand, etc. However, the concept of traffic demand contains a bias. There is really no such thing as a demand for traffic, and traffic is not a commodity that most people desire. Demand is overly strong and implies a sense of urgency which does not necessarily exist. Objective language would be motor vehicle use or travel demand.

In addition, promoting alternative modes of transportation is generally considered a good thing. However, the word alternative begs the question, ÒAlternative to what?Ó The assumption is alternative to automobiles. Alternative also implies that these modes are nontraditional or unconventional, which is not the case with the pedestrian, cycle, nor transit modes. The direct and objective language is non-automobile modes of transportation.

Other Misnomers 

Further, accidents are events during which something harmful or unlucky happens unexpectedly or by chance. Accident implies no fault. It is well known that the vast majority of accidents are preventable and that fault can be assigned. The use of accident also reduces the degree of responsibility and severity associated with the situation and invokes an inherent degree of sympathy for the person responsible. Objective language includes collision and crash.

Protect means shielding from harm. However, when discussing protecting land for a right-of-way for a street, the intent is not to shield the land from harm, but to construct a street over it. Objective terms include designate and purchase.

The city strives to make the transportation systems operate as efficiently as possible. However, care must be taken when using efficient because it is often confused with the word faster. Do not assume that faster is necessarily more efficient. 

Language Influences Thought

It is important to keep in mind that language is one of the fundamental forms of communication. It is especially critical to ensure that there is a clear understanding of the terms, particularly those that are being used for communication. Until the inherent biases that have been created over the last few decades are removed, or at least acknowledged, it may be difficult to ensure that all stakeholders and constituents are given proper consideration during planning. Once the level of understanding is increased, the increased level of equity should follow. 

Contact: Ian Lockwood, City Transportation Planner, West Palm Beach, 561/659-8031.

Table of Contents

The United States Conference of Mayors

J. Thomas Cochran, Executive Director
1620 Eye Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006
Telephone (202) 293-7330, FAX (202) 293-2352

Copyright ©1996, U.S. Conference of Mayors, All rights reserved.

One thought on “1996 Transportation Policy in West Palm Beach was revolutionary

  1. Pingback: City Transportation Language Policy – 1996 memo | Walkable West Palm Beach

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